One of the great things about landscape and nature photography (and in particular photography whilst travelling) is those hidden gems and moments you occasionally stumble across when you least expect it. Because these finds and moments are unplanned there is never an expectation of just how good they might be (It’s not like to going to the Grand Canyon where one expects to get great photographs). Without the chance of an overly built up expectation I find they almost always produce results that are at the very least uplifiting to the photographic spirit and at best that can produce truly wonderful work.
Whilst travelling in the South Island of New Zealand last July between locations we stumbled across a well hidden slot canyon just off the side of the road – A hidden gem as it were. I would wager that more than 99.9% of people driving past this location would never even know its there. There are no signs and no markers of any kind. The only clue is a bridge crossing with what looks at first blush like a cave to one side. As we crossed over the bridge I happened to be looking in the right direction, as was Phillip our guide and I just caught a glimpse of what looked like a really beautiful glacial stream feeding out of a cave. Phillip turned to look at me to see if I had spotted the location; which I had. The excitement in the air was palpable and it must have been written on my face because Phillip had that cheeky look of someone about to reveal something truly very special. As indeed he did.
We immediately pulled over the side of the road, grabbed our camera gear and scrambled down the steep rocky and snowy gully under the bridge where all was revealed. From this vantage point we could see the pristine river flowing down from a stunning slot canyon. We took our shoes and socks off and waded up the freezing icy river to set up our cameras (I have never had feet this cold before – thawing them out afterward in the car was a very painful experience). A light mist and water run off dripped down from the moss and foliage at the top; which was lit from behind by the overhead sunlight. Conditions were perfect for photography and I literally could not wipe the grin from my face.The photograph below is my favourite from the hour or so we spent photographing in this location – which I affectionally dubbed ‘Shelob’s Lair’ – the obvious reference to The Lord of the Rings seemed apt for New Zealand’s South island. Truth is, if Phillip had not dragged me away (quietly kicking and screaming) I would probably have spent another hour photographing in the freezing stream and may well have ended up with frost bitten toes.
It was an interesting choice of how to shoot this as my first reaction was to reach for the polariser to remove any reflections from the photograph. What I concluded in discussion with Phillip was that we both agreed the wet rocks were what gave the whole scene its magic and that removing the wet look and reflections would overly flatten the image. So I photographed this strait with a 24mm lens without any filters. It was quite dark in the canyon despite being lit from directly overhead, so I used a tripod. The exposure was six seconds at F11 at ISO100. The almost iridescent moss and lichen combined with the crystal clear aqua of the stream being lit from above really speaks to me as small slice of nature untouched. New Zealand’s rivers and streams are truly stunning in their purity. Its quite hard to see in the small compressed jpeg on screen, but in print the backlit misty water and run off from the top makes the photograph. I also very much like the feeling this photograph invokes for what may be around the corner of the canyon. Before anyone asks – I am sworn to secrecy on the exact whereabouts of this slot canyon – sorry! But I am definitely going back and this time with a set of waders.